Willa Cather wrote “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog” for children. It first appeared in the December 1896 edition of The Home Monthly. What a trip! What a trauma!
While I am not particularly well-versed in the history of Christmas stories for children, as a kid who grew up in twentieth-century America, I am aware that a common trope is a situation that threatens to prevent Santa Claus from delivering presents to good little children around the world. This story is in that vein.
“The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog” takes place on December 23rd. Papa Santa, Mamma Santa, and their trusty friend White Bear are chatting around the fire. Santa asks White Bear if the reindeer are all in good shape, and they are. White Bear mentions that he thought he saw the Were-Wolf Dog hanging around, so after rubbing down the reindeer, he locks up the stable to be safe.
The Were-Wolf Dog has it out for Santa. “He hates everything that is not as mean as himself.” The year before he had tampered with the reindeers’ harnesses which broke before Santa reached Norway.
Are you wondering about who this White Bear is? Here’s what the narrator has to say about him:
But most boys and girls do not know much about the White Bear, for though he is really a very important personage, he has been strangely neglected by the biographers of Santa Claus. But that is often the way of the historians: they concentrate themselves upon a single important figure of a place or time, and forget to mention at all other factors quite as important. Then after a while some one takes up the people whom the historians have left in the dark, and tries to do them long-delayed justice. Now I would consider it quite a sufficient purpose in life and a very considerable accomplishment if I could set the White Bear right with history, and convince the world of his importance.(Source: The Willa Cather Archive)
Isn’t that just the tightest little lesson about the politics of writing history?
After everyone retires, the monstrous looking Were-Wolf Dog slinks out of the shadows and heads to the stables. He talks the reindeer into taking a pleasure flight in the moonlight to see the Northern lights up toward the Polar Sea. They’ll be back before Santa needs them for the big event. If you’re thinking they probably get hung up and get home just in the nick of time, that’s a nice thought.
No, they die.
The Were-Wolf Dog tricks them into walking on the ice and it cracks and most of the reindeer quickly drown. Three struggle to make it out of the water — Dunder, Dasher, and Prancer. They’re treading water and getting sliced by ice flows. “A great chunk of ice struck Prancer in the breast, and he groaned and sank.” Dunder tries to help Dasher who tells him he can’t make it, he must save himself: “‘we will skim the white snow fields no more together.’ And with that he, too, sank down into the black water.” This is some dark stuff!
Dunder eventually makes it back. He taps on White Bear’s window who looks out to see the reindeer, “standing there all covered with ice and blood.”
I’ll stop talking about the story there. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what happens next.
Down a reindeer rabbit hole
Initially, I had planned to do a little research about the White Bear, but then I became intrigued by Dunder. Why did Cather change the name? Was it a typo? Did I miss something about Santa’s reindeer while growing up? So I looked into Santa’s reindeer. Starting with my favorite.
When I was a kid, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was my favorite Christmas movie (1964). The movie was based on a 1939 picture book/pamphlet by Robert L. May that was sold at Montgomery Ward department stores. It was a big hit. I found a digitized copy online and the name of the reindeer in question is Donner, not Dunder in May’s story.
So then I tracked down where Santa’s reindeers first go their names. That honor seems to rest with Clement Clarke Moore who names them in his 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” This is the poem that begins, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house….” The reindeers’ names are: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Coment, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen.
Some internet sources credit May with being responsible for the switch from Dunder to Donner. Apparently there is also some speculation that the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which was originally published anonymously, may have been written by Henry Livingston, a Dutch New Yorker. What created this speculation is the various spellings of the last two reindeer named in the poem, which have been printed as Dunder and Blixem, Donder and Blitzen, and finally Donner and Blitzen. These names mean thunder and lighting. In Dutch it is Dunder and Blixem and in German, Donder and Blitzen.
I find all this rather fascinating and had no idea about the evolution of these two reindeer’s names. Cather’s story was published in 1896, when Dunder was still Dunder or maybe Donder, but not Donner.
What do you think?
Have you read “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog”? Do you have some reindeer name intrigue to share? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s chat in the comments below.
New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!
Whoa that sounds dark! Goodness! Fascinating stuff about the names, though.
[…] seriously enjoying this phase of Cather’s writing. This story and last month’s, “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog,” are both surprising and […]